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Let Sleeping Bones Lie

The refurbished sign, originally commissioned twenty years ago. In the background, the memorial bench by Craig Shankles. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021


Let Sleeping Bones Lie



The question that remains in Boston, and across the country, is how we can amend the American story through our monuments without tearing them all down.  


                -W. Ralph Eubanks, "Monuments," in The New Yorker 10/24/21



It's been twenty years since a memorial sign and bench were installed in front of 174 Huguenot Street to commemorate the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, NY, though it's more than likely that the African American Burial Ground is underneath the lawn of 176, and more a burial pit than a burial ground. The then owners of 176 refused to allow ground-penetrating radar and sent their lawyer to a African American Burial Ground Committee meeting to object to further excavation. According to Susan Stessin-Cohn, who was working at Historic Huguenot Street at the time, and is now the New Paltz Town Historian, a bulldozer had turned up human bones. Although it is not against the penal code of New York State to let sleeping bones lie, further investigation might have amplified the story of enslavement in New Paltz and the Mid-Hudson Valley.


Stessin-Cohn remained and remains undaunted. Years after this disappointment, she ceremoniously buried the skull of an African slave excavated from the perimeter of the Deyo House in 1894, and stored away in the Historic Huguenot Street archives ever since. Stessin-Cohn, along with the Board of Historic Huguenot Street, thought it was past time to memorialize at least one slave, thereby honoring all others who had lived and worked as chattel on the street.


The United States from 1619 onwards was a slave society. Until 1827 when slavery was outlawed in New York State, the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers in New Paltz owned slaves: 302 by 1790, which was 13% of the population at that time, according  to the Register of Slaves unearthed at the Historic Huguenot Street archives by Stessin-Cohn and her colleague, Eric Roth.  "If anyone needs restitution, it's us here," Susan Stessin-Cohn has said often over the years.


The remains of indigenous people are protected by Federal law, but the remains of slaves are not. When the bi-partisan African American Burial Grounds legislation pending in Congress is finally signed into law, it will provide both grants and assistance to communities to discover and protect these burial grounds. But it is not a mandate; the aid has to be requested. As for reparations for the descendants of enslaved families, that will take much longer, though it will happen, eventually.


Meanwhile, small communities throughout the United States are reassessing their histories, their narratives, and their extant physical monuments. New Paltz is no exception. Historic Huguenot Street has done a lot of reinterpretation in the three years since I arrived in the town, the SUNY campus has taken down the names of the slave-owning families on their dormitories, and there are plans by the Village of New Paltz, with the assistance of the Historic Preservation Commission, to commemorate the Black history of the town by landmarking  a derelict house on Broadhead Ave., partially built by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man who fought in the Civil War and returned to New Paltz—where  he had been born and raised—to become a contractor and builder. Several of his houses are still standing. He is buried in the (formerly) segregated Rural Cemetery.   


No developer welcomes delay, no owner the stigma of a slave burial ground on their property, which may (or may not) affect the value of that property. Those are the rumblings I've heard as I researched this modest story. But denial and obfuscation will not make the physical remains of the enslaved population in New Paltz disappear. After years of meticulous research Susan Stessin-Cohn believes there are numerous African American burial grounds in New Paltz. With her annual stipend of $1000 and limited time, she does what she can, but there are no slave descendant Black residents that I know of in New Paltz—the result of a still under-reported Jim Crow culture— who will hasten what still needs to be done, or demand it. 


Apart from the students and faculty on the SUNY New Paltz campus, the whiteness of the town, which most consider liberal-progressive, is a story, too. How did this happen?  Where did the emancipated slaves go?  A few built a community on Pencil Hill Road, but they became destitute and left the area, or may have ended up in the Poor House, now covered over by the Ulster County Fairgrounds and Pool, and memorialized with a statue commissioned by Stessin-Cohn.


Down at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. , a committee of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in collaboration with descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, are working to create a contemplative space in a slave burial ground discovered near the parking lot. The burial ground, which holds over forty graves analyzed by ground-penetrating radar, remains undisturbed. New paths and plantings will be installed, as well as seating and signs to "reinvigorate"  and protect the sacred space.


And closer to my home in New Paltz, the Pine Street African American Burial Ground in Kingston, NY is being restored and protected as a sacred space and educational benchmark by the Kingston Land Trust and Scenic Hudson in collaboration with Harambee, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring the community together through celebration and awareness of African-American Heritage. I look forward to participating in—and reporting on—a  similar project in New Paltz in the not too distant future.


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David Sedaris for One Day



That's the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.


― David Sedaris, "Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002"



Writers observe, notate, wake with sentences in their head, draft stories and revise them until the moment they are submitted for publication. We keep journals, diaries and notebooks. This is our practice, our daily rumination, the warm-up that keeps the writer's muscle supple. New writers don't do this because they haven't practiced doing it. Writing seems easy because we all are taught to write in school, more or less, but writing to a professional level is a skill, a craft, an efflorescing gift, and it requires hard work. Successful writers are hard workers and sometimes unsuccessful and/or as yet unknown writers are also hard workers with ambition, discipline and talent. The difference between them and David Sedaris might be access to the right people and the caste and class into which you and I and they were born and raised. It's a market driven world out there, and a tough one.


I don't know how David Sedaris got started professionally exactly, but he's a a good writer and earned accolades with his first submissions. And then he improved and evolved until he became an iconic best-selling writer.


Another volume of his diaries has just been published and he's on tour. He even landed a gig at a theater in Poughkeepsie, across the river from where I'm living. I didn't make it, but I hear it was a great success. In addition to being a good writer, David Sedaris is funny; he's an entertainer and a satirist similar to Mark Twain. And boy do we need some entertainment right now as we enter the second Covid winter, albeit vaccinated and less fraught. (Mandate: please do not continue reading this post unless you are vaccinated.)


As I've been on a publicity tour myself, I'd have to say that it's tiring, has nothing to do with writing per se, and may or may not sell many books, the primary reason that publishers send writers out on tours in tandem with a social media blitz. It can be fun, but isn't always fun. Like writing itself, it's mostly hard work in between blissful moments.


The Sedaris diary entries often feel scant and leave us wanting more. Why did he decide--or his agent and/or publisher--decide to sell excerpts from his diaries right now? Is it to keep the brand alive while Sedaris is still in his prime? Will he release them to an archive in their entirety when he's on his deathbed, or before?  Do his readers and fans understand that these entries are expurgated and edited, that they explain nothing about the struggle to write a pithy sentence? Is this a David Sedaris joke? When we peruse these diary entries do we access his inner life in ways we hadn't expected? Or is the author a puppet master pulling our strings, hidden behind the scrim of the stage, peeking out at us with a big grin on his face?


That all said, I'd give a gazillion dollars to be David Sedaris for just one day, to have his wry humor, his perspective, his acceptance of human frailty, and tolerance for endless human ignorance, and his confidence in the fundamental goodness of all the people he encounters in his life, more or less. At times, I've tried to write like David Sedaris. In fact, he's looking over my shoulder right now as I emulate his life-affirming spirit.








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When People Tell Me Things




 Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless. 

 Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all. 


-from the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics


From time to time, when a new acquaintance or a complete stranger hears, or learns from me directly, that I am a journalist, they tell me stories or facts I did not know. Suddenly, I am the custodian of information to write about, pass along to the appropriate authorities, or, if the story is too big, feed to a news organization with the resources to investigate. I steer the investigative reporter, or team of reporters, to my sources, who will become their sources. I might continue with some reporting myself, take good notes, and share them. I enjoy behind-the-scenes reporting without the responsibility of crafting a story that has to be fact checked ad infinitum before it is published. I've done my bit and can get back to my own work. The imperative of exposing what I have learned is satisfied. My byline may or may not appear, which is of no consequence; the story has been told.


Some stories and facts are more startling than others and demand instant and dedicated attention. When a friend of a friend heard I was a journalist, she called to tell me she'd found a white supremacist flyer in a wastebasket near the copy machine in her office. For obvious reasons, she wanted to remain anonymous; she was frightened. She took a photo of the flyer and sent it to me. It was a  "blood libel" screed,  a centuries-old allegation that Jews murder Christians to use their blood for ritual purposes. Blood libels have frequently led to violence, including the 2018  Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which was mentioned in the flyer. I didn't waste any time; I went straight to the police. They sent out an investigator who confirmed that the screed had arrived by fax. The result of the investigation, in its entirety, was then forwarded to the FBI domestic terrorism unit. 


And then there are the times when the person I am talking to or interviewing forgets that I am a journalist. Just this week, a member of the Town Board in the very town where I live, inadvertently revealed a conflict of interest. Maybe she didn't realize the conflict of interest, or didn't know how to tell a reporter that she was talking to me off the record; or maybe she thought that because I live in the town, I would accept the conflict of interest as "normal."


Now what am I supposed to do? Bury the revelation? Not likely.


It's no surprise that some people don't understand a reporter's ethical obligations. We've been laughed at, ignored, doubted, undermined, and laid off during these past difficult false-news years. The local press is dying, which means that there aren't many reporters around in small communities any more. At least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were without one at the beginning of 2020. Thus the proliferation of blogs, such as this one.

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